Government accountability: NASA


Some parts (likely most parts) of government continue to work well – for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO has published its 12thannual “quick look”(which is darned thorough) at the status of NASA’s major projects.

According to the report, NASA “is planning to invest at least $65 billion over the life cycle of its current portfolio of 25 major projects, which we define as those projects or programs that have a life cycle cost of over $250 million.” GAO has been doing these annual reports since 2009, at the direction of Congress, “to assess the cost and schedule performance, technology maturity and design stability” of these projects.

NASA’s most expensive projects are, on the science side, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and, on the human space flight side, the Space Launch System/Orion projects. The latter are critical elements of NASA’s plan to send people back to the Moon by 2024 – a goal I believe to be unachievable, and also of little to no public value.

GAO notes, “Prior to being approved for development, cost estimates for JWST ranged from $1 billion to $3.5 billion, with expected launch dates ranging from 2007 to 2011…. Now estimated at $9.7 billion, the project’s costs have increased by 95 percent” – 95 percent! – “and its launch date has been delayed by over 6.5 years since its cost and schedule baselines were [re]established in 2009.”

NASA itself says it has only a 12 percent chance of meeting its current planned JWST launch date of March 2021.

The next big NASA planetary science mission up for launch is Mars 2020. GAO reports, “The Mars 2020 project has encountered development cost growth of almost $360 million, which exceeds the 15 percent congressional notification threshold at a critical point in the development process when problems are most commonly found and schedules tend to slip. This cost growth was due to multiple development difficulties, delayed deliveries, and higher than anticipated procurement costs.” The cost of formulation, development, and operation of Mars 2020 appears to be close to $3 billion.

Meanwhile, NASA and the European Space Agency are proceeding with plans for a joint Mars sample return mission, with dual launches proposed for 2026. I can’t find any information from either agency right now about cost estimates for this mission, but certainly it will be a multi-billion-dollar endeavor.

This mission is designed to collect samples from the martian surface that will have been cached – if all goes well – by the Mars 2020 rover. It will be extremely complex – I’ve read the phase-2 report of the International Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples (MARS) Working Group, published in the journal Astrobiology in April 2018. The plan outlined in this report looks solid – but, again, it’s extremely complex. Hence, expensive.

The reason why a Mars sample return mission has been a top priority and, thus far, mission impossible since the late 1970s is that, while the space community has known how to do it, it has not known how to do it affordably. I expect that the current NASA-ESA mission plan will end up costing more and taking longer than the agencies now anticipate.

See my report on cost and schedule escalation for NASA’s Viking mission to Mars – while the mission was completed, and was successful, management and budget problems plagued the project from Day One and the duration.

Over the next year, nations around the world will need to start rebuilding their economies. In the U.S., where I live, I believe the government should create something akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, putting people back to work to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and reinforce our public-health system. The WPA was only one of FDR’s New Deal programs, which revived the U.S. economy, created jobs, and provided security to citizens. We’ll need to do it again.

Don’t get me wrong. I love space science and believe it’s important for us to continuing exploring space. But right now, I don’t think space exploration advocates should be lobbying for more money for space exploration. And definitely not with humans. Human exploration is too expensive. And what’s the point?

Finally, I want to note that Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions, is retiring. Chaplain has led the team that has been producing GAO’s excellent reports on NASA activities. She and her team have been doing a great job, and her retirement will be a loss for government accountability. I wish her successors the best of luck.

Reliable sources/fact-checking

2fupudCredit: imgflip

We’re all consuming more information than usual online, not just about COVID-19 but about pretty much everything. (Right?)

So, I’m doing a post about reliable sources of information.

First, the most reliable sources of information about COVID-19 that I’m paying attention to are as follows.

Scienceand Naturemagazines – I subscribe to both (and subscriptions aren’t cheap). I don’t know how much of the information that these magazines offer is behind a paywall, but check them out. They are keeping up to date on the latest scientific information about COVID-19.

I have found the New York Times, Washington Post, and for state and local news my local newspaper the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune, to be reliable sources of information about COVID-19 as well. If you don’t subscribe to your local newspaper, do it now. They need your support. Many news sources online have removed their paywalls, in full or in part, during the current crisis. (I subscribe to the Sunday Times, which gives me full access to the Times online, and the digital Post, plus home delivery of my local paper.)

Just FYI, in case you think that the mass media are liberally biased, there is no evidence to support this assertion, in particular when it comes to politics. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advancesthis month – Hans H.G. Hassell et al, “There is no liberal media bias in which news stories political journalists choose to cover” – reports: “Using a unique combination of alarge-scale survey of political journalists, data from journalists’ Twitter networks, electionreturns, a large-scale correspondence experiment, and a conjoint survey experiment, we showdefinitively that the media exhibits no bias against conservatives (or liberals for that matter) inwhat news that they choose to cover. This shows that journalists’ individual ideologicalleanings have unexpectedly little effect on the vitally important, but, up to this point,unexplored, early stage of political news generation.”

Here are other reliable sources of information about science, in general, that I’ve consulted over the years: the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS); and the American Geophysical Union (AGU)– AGU in particular has been doing a great job of staying on top of the science of climate change . I’m sure there are many more reliable sources of information about science, but these are sources with which I’m familiar.

For reliable information about corporate public relations campaigns, try Sourcewatch, which provide[s] well-documented information about corporate public relations (PR) campaigns, including corporate front groups, people who ‘front’ corporate campaigns, and PR operations.” SourceWatch is published by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), an organization that is funded by foundation grants from foundations ranging from the Ford and Rockefeller Family Foundations to George Soros’s Open Society Institute.

For political fact-checking, try Politifact— “a nonpartisan fact-checking website to sort out the truth in American politics. PolitiFact was created by the Tampa Bay (FL) Timesin 2007. In 2018, PolitiFact was acquired by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists.

Another reliable source of political fact-checking is Fact Check. Fact Check is transparent about its funding sources. It says: “Prior to fiscal 2010, we were supported entirely by three sources: funds from the APPC’s own resources (specifically an endowment created in 1993 by the Annenberg Foundation at the direction of the late Walter Annenberg, and a 1995 grant by the Annenberg Foundation to fund APPC’s Washington, D.C., base); additional funds from the Annenberg Foundation; and grants from the Flora Family Foundation. In 2010, we began accepting donations from individual members of the public for the first time, responding to many unsolicited offers of support from our subscribers. We launched our first public appeal for donations in April 2010.”

The APPC is the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which operates out of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Both the center and the school have excellent reputations. The APPC was established in 1993 by former ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Its ongoing funding comes from an endowment established for it at that time by the Annenberg Foundation.


Another site I often find useful is Media Bias/Fact Check. According to this outfit, Funding for Media Bias Fact Check comes from donations and third party advertising. We use third party advertising to prevent influence and bias as we do not select the ads you see displayed. Ads are generated based on your search history, cookies and the content of the current web page you are viewing. This sometimes leads to politically biased ads as well as promotion of pseudoscience products that we do not endorse.”

I do not trust any sources online that do not name members of staff and do not divulge funding sources. That’s my rule of thumb.  (I’ve noticed that a lot of organizations with the words “liberty” or “freedom” in their names are promoting libertarian ideology.) And even some corporate front groups that do provide some information about staff and funding are suspect.

Take, for example, the Center for Consumer Freedom, which it says is supported by  “restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers.” (Exactly who?) The Center’s executive director is Rick Berman, who is president of the Washington, DC-based public affairs firm Berman and Company. Herman and Co. says it “specializes in research, communications, and creative advertising.”

Creative, indeed….

One recent campaign launched by the Center for Consumer Freedom – a.k.a. Rick Berman – was an attempt to convey the idea that plant-based meat substitutes are bad for your health. I was alerted to this campaign by an article in the health section of my local newspaper, which turned out to be a truncated version of a story that had been published by the New York Times. The Times story included information about the Center for Consumer Freedom and its backing by the meat industry. My local paper edited out that part of the story. I wrote a letter to the editor of my paper, saying, “check your sources” – my letter was published.

Here’s what SourceWatch has to say about Berman: he’s “ a former labor management attorney and restaurant industry executive who, with his firm Berman & Co., currently works as a Washington, D.C. lobbyist for the food, alcoholic beverage, tobacco industries and, more recently, other industries. Berman & Co. has lobbied for companies such as Cracker Barrel, Hooters, International House of Pancakes, Olive GardenOutback SteakhouseRed Lobster, Steak & Ale, TGI Friday’s, Uno’s Restaurants, and Wendy’s.

Berman has earned the nicknames “Dr. Evil,” the “Conservatives’ Weapon of Mass Destruction” and the “Astroturf Kingpin” for his repeated use of the strategy of forming dozens of non-profit front groups, attack-dog web sites, and alleged think tanks that defend his corporate clients’ interests by attacking their critics, allowing his paying clients to remain out of public view.

So, friends, check your facts – please?

And as everyone’s saying these days – stay safe!

Space science (still) at work


Dear readers, you know that while I am a long-time consultant to NASA science programs, I’m not in the habit of cheerleading for NASA. But today, I want to praise my two NASA teams – astrobiology and planetary defense – for keeping their programs moving along as best they can, managing grants and staying in touch with their grantees. I’m sure that many other NASA program managers are doing the same, but I’ll talk about the ones I know.

I am so impressed with how my NASA colleagues have adapted to working from home. The science community writ large has been working with virtual meeting and communication tools for some time, so we may be better equipped than other communities to adapt to the current environment.

For the astrobiology program, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI)– established in 1998 and “sunsetted” in 2018 – was established as a virtual research institute – an innovative concept some 20 years ago. The NAI enabled many members of the astrobiology community to become familiar with virtual meeting and collaboration tools long before they came into common use. In addition, the astrobiology community has a vibrant early-career component, members of which are knowledgeable about working with online collaboration tools. So we’re good to go.

NASA’s Office of Communications has created a resource for engaging people stuck at home – especially those with children. It’s called NASA @ Home and offers videos, podcasts, and other activities for families with children.

My planetary-defense colleague Kelly Fast made a video for NASA @ Home at her home in Maryland to explain, “What do we mean when we say an asteroid is making a close approach to Earth?” (We had a close approach of an asteroid designated 2020 GH2 on April 15 – 223,000 miles from Earth.) The short answer is: for asteroid observers, “close” could range from tens of thousands to millions of miles. She puts things into proper perspective, visually.

On Tuesday April 14, my astrobiology colleague Mike Toillion, along with colleagues Graham Lau and Sanjoy Som, was able to stage another episode of the online seminar series “Ask an Astrobiologist” with University of Arizona astrobiologist Betul Kacar. It’s excellent! I recommend it. Betul is a colleague and a friend, and I am in awe of her accomplishments. She is featured on UN Women: Europe and Central Asia, explaining her path from Turkey to the U.S.This episode came just two weeks after the last one, with Colin Goldblatt (also very interesting). On April 16 on YouTube, Mike premiered a video he produced about our colleague Aaron Gronstal, who is the artist (and also a Ph.D. scientist) who has been producing a series of astrobiology graphic histories.

The activities I’ve mentioned may not seem critical, but they are part of an overall effort to keep science programs moving, and scientists at work. Scientists are doing the best they can to keep working. The NASA program managers I work with are doing their best to keep funding flowing, convert grant proposal reviews from in-person to virtual, move mission planning along, and so on. Most big science conferences have been postponed or cancelled. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate posted its latest FAQs on grants and research during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 8, following guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

I have been working remotely with my NASA colleagues in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, since I moved to Sarasota, Florida, in 2017. So the current situation is not especially disruptive for me. I live in a beautiful park-like community where I walk every morning – six feet from my neighbors – watch mockingbirds, great blue herons, many other beautiful birds – and I have my own solar-heated pool. So my life is good. I’m one of the lucky ones. Stay safe!